Monday, 24 February 2014

The First Draft Blues

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, someone told me they believed I'd one day be a writer. I believed it too. That fact that the person who told me this went on to be a successful and award-nominated novelist and screen-writer themselves only reinforced my confidence that one day I too would be a published novelist.

Gradually, though, it dawned on me, that I'd have to actually write a book to make that happen.

And then followed years and years of not writing a book and hating myself for it, of waking up every January 1st and thinking: 'Here I go again, not writing my book for another year'.

I did eventually start writing, of course, but it was short fiction. The shorter the better. I had some success and thought, okay, this is what I'm good at, this is okay, I'm still a writer. I told anyone who would listen (or asked) that I was pretty sure I'd never write a novel, because it just wasn't where my talents lay.

And then I had an idea for a book. Still I procrastinated, but the idea wouldn't go away.

Last April, my husband bought me a new laptop and gave me a deadline: 20,000 words by the end of the summer, or the laptop went to my teenage daughter. Ah, he knows me so well. I exceeded his target a month early and I was on my way. Writing a book.

Some ten months after starting, I've nearly finished the first draft of my novel. I should be cock-a-hoop, right? Punching the air, typing THE END in the biggest, boldest, most italic-y font I can find.

But I'm not. And that's okay.

The thing is, I have a lot of words, but they don't feel like a book yet.

I have a sort-of story, my protagonist goes on a journey, but I know it needs more narrative drive.

I've discovered what my book is about in the process of writing it, but I know I need to draw out the themes, strengthen them, weave them through the fabric of my book so it's less like crochet and more like a tightly-woven damask that shows different colours and patterns depending on how you turn it in the light.

I have characters, quite a few of them. Most of them are engaging and interesting. Almost all of them are more engaging and interesting than my protagonist. I need to make her more than just a sounding board, less reactive and more proactive in her own life. I need to find out what is unique about her AND what makes her like everyone else.

I have important scenes that are woefully underwritten and less important scenes that go on and on and on. I need to look at the balance of my book, the rhythm, the pace.

I need to do all these things, and more, before the big heap of words I've put together resembles anything like a book. And I'm itching to get on with it. Getting to the end of the first draft is a notable achievement, but it feels more like a mid-point than anything else. Hence the lack of air-punching.

My aim is to have a solid second draft done by the summer. If you hear whooping across the internet sometime in late June or early July, it'll probably be me, typing THE END.

And then, following feedback, I'll get cracking with the third draft. And maybe, just maybe, by then I'll have written a book.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Do Not Be Afraid: When Self-publishing Turns Good

Two things I heard on the radio yesterday made me think of the Stories for Homes short story anthology. One was a feature about the potential shift in power in publishing from the established publishing houses to agents and, ultimately, authors. With the rise of self-publishing, the question of who judges what is fit to be published has become a vexed one.

The other thing I heard was a review of this year's batch of Christmas singles. The reviewer all but apologised for reviewing the charity singles in terms of their musical worth, as if anything done for charity should be above criticism for quality.

Which brings me to Stories for Homes. It is a bumper anthology, with more than sixty stories, all donated by the authors, all on the theme of 'home'. All the profits from this book go directly to support the homeless charity, Shelter. I was one of the proof-readers for the book (as well as having a story included) and one of the things that struck me was the sheer quality of the writing. A book that is the result of an open call for submissions via Twitter and Facebook, produced in a matter of months by passionate volunteers - surely it can't be a good read, can it? And yet it is full of powerful, poignant, funny, clever, and moving writing.

One of the secrets to this quality is the fact that the book has two editors, Sally Swingewood and Debi Alper, who read all, yes all, the submissions. After many hours, cigarettes, cups of coffee, and a few cakes, they selected the best stories. There were a lot of them. And time was short. So (and this is the genius part), every writer was paired up with another writer to peer-review and edit each other's stories.

This is another feature of the new world of self-publishing and social media - the rise of the 'reader', by which I mean the trusted people who get to read and comment on my writing before I unleash it on the world. Thanks to the internet, I have a bunch of fabulous writers that I turn to when I need a properly critical eye turned on my words. And I do the same for them. I've had the pleasure of reading several novels recently pre-submission to agents. Writers, it turns out, are generous people. Generous with their time, their support, their skills.

And so it proved with Stories for Homes. Some people were new to the idea of peer-editing and were probably quite nervous. Others, like me, were old hands. We got stuck in, the stories were edited and polished and then they were sent back to Sally and Debi. Then began the Herculean task of deciding the running order, designing the cover and getting it ready for publishing on Kindle. The Facebook group was (and still is) alive with discussion - finessing the design and blurb, devising marketing strategies, exchanging skills and expertise.

It was at this point I offered to proof-read the ebook version. I didn't have very high expectations, to be honest. I've been involved in anthologies before. The quality of the stories is sometimes, well, 'variable' would be the polite way to put it. Sometimes I wonder what on earth the editors were thinking. Obviously my story would be top notch, but some of the others? Sheesh. Not so with Stories for Homes. As I read Mandy Berriman's exquisite opening story 'A Home Without Moles', I knew this would be a charity anthology with a difference.

A few years ago, people would have turned their noses up at a self-published book, even if it was for charity.  But I'm sitting at my kitchen table looking at a fat paperback book, with a gorgeous cover and even more gorgeous content, and I'm thoroughly proud to be a part of it.

Oh, yes, did I mention? Stories for Homes is now available in paperback. You can buy it from Createspace or Amazon. Every single penny of profit is paid directly to Shelter. Every. Penny.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Am I too old to be a new novelist?

So, I'm finally writing THAT novel. The one I said I'd never write, then said I might write, then decided I really ought to write. I'm approaching half-way through the first draft and the thing is taking on a life of its own. It feels like I'm about to start a down-hill gallop through the second half and towards the end. Even so, there's probably at least another year's worth of work to get it to a submittable standard. And then, imagining I got an agent and publisher IMMEDIATELY (because life totally works like that, right?), another eighteen months or so after that before I can realistically expect to see an actual book with my name on it in a bookshop. Being hugely optimistic (if not deluded), we are talking two, maybe three years before I become a debut published novelist.

I'll be in my late-forties by then. And this is something that has given me much pause for thought recently.

The internet is awash with opportunities for 'new' writers. What is a 'new' writer? Is it someone who has just started writing? Or someone who has just started submitting and getting published? You'll also see plenty of references to 'aspiring' writers. FYI, I'm not 'aspiring' to write - I actually do it. I'm 'aspiring' to be published. Quite different. Another favourite soubriquet (sick bags at the ready) is the 'budding' writer. Pur-lease. Why don't you just say 'nubile' and be done with it?

Because my suspicion is that all these terms - new, budding, aspiring - are really euphemisms for 'young'. A new 'young' writer with talent must be a more enticing prospect to a publisher than an older one, by sheer dint of the fact that they have all those writing years ahead of them. More books, more money for everyone.

And yet, how many people beavering away at their first novels are in their forties, their fifties, and beyond, into retirement age? The writer Alison Wells suggested the need for a writing competition for older writers, the entry requirement being that: 'We were doing other things'. She was joking - sort of. I've seen plenty of writing competitions open to people under a certain age. I've never seen one where you have to be OVER a certain age to enter. Why not? Is it just the economics of publishing? Or is it the assumption that young writers have talent but no gumption and need help to get started? We wrinklies can fend for ourselves. And anyway, we probably have jobs and partners that mean we don't need to write for a living, we're just hobbyists. Some of us might get lucky and get our little pet projects published, but really, if we were serious about being writers, shouldn't we have started sooner?

Now, I know all the stories about writers who started late (such as Mary Wesley) or had late resurgences (Barbara Pym), but I wonder if they would have been given a chance today. I don't know the answer to that. I don't know if agents and publishers really care about how old a writer is when they take them on, and I'd love to hear that they don't.

Meanwhile, I do have regrets about not starting sooner. And yet the things I was doing while I wasn't discovering that I was a writer are the things that make me a writer now: living, loving, grieving, make new people inside my own body, laughing, crying, fighting, watching, wondering, regretting, and above all, wondering what it's all about. The first novel I'm writing now is not the first novel I would have written in my twenties, or my thirties. I can't change that, and I really hope that it won't count against me as and when I start sending it out into the world.

At least I can be sure that by then no one would dare describe me as 'budding'.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Magnolia Drifts - A Poem

In honour of National Poetry Day, I thought I'd post my one and only poem. It's a bit lonely all by itself on my hard drive.

Magnolia Drifts

Magnolia drifts
on an Easterly breeze.
Nestled up to creamy lilac,
it is coconut ice.
East meets West in the suburbs.

I go West and wake to darkness.
There are deeper rhythms that will not be reset.
I am adrift.
My magnolia waits, blooms, fades and waits again.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Long and Short of Longlists

Long lists, what are they good for? Absolutely nothing...

This was the rather tongue-in-cheek comment I made as part of The Writing Competition Entrants' Manifesto, a plea to writing competition organisers to make entering their competitions just a little less stressful for us poor writers. It was a throw-away comment, just putting it out there that I don't like long lists. Little did I know that it would be the part of the Manifesto that attracted most debate.

There are two types of long list: those that appear before the final results are announced, and those that appear after. To be clear, it is the first that I really object to. Waiting for results of competitions can be stressful. Some people get positively obsessed, checking their email, stalking the organisers on Twitter and Facebook. Personally, I like to enter a competition and, as much as possible, forget about it. It helps that I enter a lot of competitions, so there is always the next one to think about. I keep a spreadsheet to track entries and make a note on there when the results are expected, just so I can double check. But generally I try not to think about it too much.

However, if I find out a few weeks before the results come out that I am on the long list, it's so much harder to forget about it. Knowing I've crossed that first hurdle makes it all but impossible not to indulge in those little daydreams where I am the awards ceremony, designer be-frocked, perfectly coiffed and shod, on the arm of Ryan Gosling - oh, sorry, that's my Oscar ceremony fantasy. Moving on...

I find the disappointment of not making the short list or the winner's enclosure worse if I know I'm on the long list. The punch feels a little harder. This may not be entirely logical, but it's the way it feels to me. And the agony of waiting is ratcheted up, another tightening of the ropes on the rack.

For media-savvy competition organisers, publishing a long list before the final results is a great way to get people talking. It's a smart move, even if it does add to the agony of those waiting. The inaugural Bath Short Story Award has been notable for its great use of Twitter. Friendly, approachable, happy to answer random writerly questions, they have ensured that people are talking about them for the right reasons. And with their long list due to be published in a few days time, they have got us all talking about it, even me, a long list refusenik. So the pre-results long list is here to stay. I just have to find a way of dealing with it.

Finding myself on the other sort of long list, the one that is published after all the winners, runners-up etc have been announced, is a different experience altogether. In the past, I've regarded it as a consolation prize. I've had the burn of disappointment, but there is the balm. I recently found myself on the long list for the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize 2013. Fish are famed for their looooong long lists. In this case, it was a list of 348. I was pleased to be there, of course, but when lovely writerly tweeps tweeted to congratulate me, I was a bit dismissive. It's such a long list, where's the achievement in that?

As it turns out, getting on the long list, any long list, is a bigger achievement than I ever realised. Writers who have been on the other side of the judging table tweeted to tell me that the cut from the entire field to the long list is the hardest for judges, and any story that ends up on the long list is a potential winner. As Tracey Upchurch recounts on her blog, she used to think being long listed was like being called someone's 'third favourite girlfriend', but Tania Hershman put her right, pointing out that the long list separates the great stories from the not-so-great. Who wouldn't want to be on a list like that? According to Vanessa Gebbie, getting on the long list means a story 'has legs', one of the most encouraging things you can hear about your work.

So the next time I find myself on a long list, I won't look on it as a consolation prize. Being on the list means that someone, somewhere, read my story amongst many, many others and thought it might possibly be a winner. That's quite an achievement.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Writer Worms Have Turned

Today's blog post is brought to you in collaboration with Guy Le Jeune. It is essential reading for all writing competition organisers. Writers are invited to add their own amendments to the manifesto via the comments box below. Too long have writers suffered under the tyranny of unclear, confusing or inadequate competition rules. We have lost too many brain cells banging our heads on our desks trying to fathom where to put our names on our entries, too many nights' sleep wondering if we should have sent that attachment in docx format.

Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you:


We are writers: entrants into many competitions, winners of too few (runner-up is nice and all that, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s the winning that matters. Oh, okay, and the writing. But mostly the winning).

We are also neurotic. It’s part of the job spec. That’s why we are writing in the pluralis
modestiae. (We had to look that up on Wiki: modesty is the sister of our particular neurosis)

We spend hours and days sitting in front of glowing screens or scribbling on scraps of paper, crafting, shaping, honing. Our stories are our babies, we love them (even the ugly ones, though sometimes they have to sit on the naughty step).

So, there we are, neurotic parents of babies that only a parent could love, and what do we do? We send those babies out into the world to be judged. 

Give us a set of rules and we will agonise over every single, insignificant detail, worried that one misstep will send our beloved creation straight into the recycling bin, unread. Entry deadlines, shortlist dates and prize money pots are scribbled on sticky notes. Fridges, notice boards and laptop screens are covered in the yellow slips of potentiality and hopeful dreams. We study eligibility criteria and submission guidelines. We lick stamps, reformat entire manuscripts and pluck sentences of outstanding beauty and genius out of finished pieces, just to fit the word-limits. We trudge to the Post Office with our brown envelopes stuffed and sealed, or hit the 'submit' button on the keyboard five minutes before the deadline, our eyes swimming with word counts, font mandates, file type restrictions.

But, fellow writers, stop and think. Where would these competitions be without us and our
stories? Where would they get their entry fees, their publicity, their sponsorship? That’s right, without us, they are nothing! And it’s about time they listened to OUR rules.

And so we present to you: The Writers’ Manifesto for Consistency and Clarity in Competition Guidelines. Each and every writing competition should adhere to these guidelines or WE WON’T SUBMIT (that’ll show ‘em).

The Writing Competition Entrants’ Manifesto

1. Word Count. Pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. Different software counts words in
different ways – and some programmes count things as words that clearly aren’t (an asterisk is not a word, Word. Asterix was a Gaul, but that’s another story). Tell us which software is your gold
standard for word-count. And tell us if the title is included (here’s a hint: it isn’t).

2. Deadline. Now we can submit electronically, a date is not enough. We need a time as well. Midnight is always a good choice.

3. Filename. Just make it the title of the story. It’s how we’ve saved it anyway, but tell us too whether we need to add or omit our name. And as far as unique identifiers go, there isn’t a literary
award in the world that requires 16bit encryption so keep it short.

4. Format. Doc, docx, pdf, rtf, blt, whatever. Just be specific. Pick one and stick with it. And if you are going to upload any of the entries anonymously, please ensure that you check the properties tab to make sure that any inquisitive right-clickers can’t see our name, address, email and telephone number.

5. Cover sheets: if you must insist on us having a cover sheet, does it go in the story document or is it a separate attachment? No, seriously, we can lose a good half-hour worrying about things like this. If you want it in the one document and you want the pages numbered, do we really have to wrestle with trying to take the number off the cover sheet and get the numbers to start at number 1 on the second page when computer says no? *contemplates applying Tippex to computer screen because that would totally solve the problem*

6. Exactly where can we put our names? Polite answers only, please.

7. Long-lists, what are they good for? Absolutely nothing.

8. Short-lists. Okay, we like short-lists, that’s a credit we can take to bank. But here’s the thing: sometimes a short-list is a list of people who might still win; sometimes it’s a list of people who nearly won, but here’s the names of the people who already did. Sometimes the people on the short-list are told before it’s published, sometimes seeing their name on the screen is the first they know about it. Follow a few writers on Twitter and you will see how we agonise about short-lists. Has anybody heard anything yet? Will the short-listed people get an email first? Anyone stalking the judges on Facebook? Has the deadline been extended? HAS ANYBODY HEARD ANYTHING YET?

For the sake of our sanity, state when the short-list will be published, and tell us if the writers on the list will be emailed first. Simple. Of course, that won’t stop us believing the email got lost in the ether, and scanning the lists just in case. But that’s our problem, not yours.

9. Each and every competition shall submit the rules and guidelines to a consultant writer before advertising the competition. That writer shall go through the process as if they were submitting. Nine of ten times they’ll ask you for clarification. Better one writer emailing you before the competition starts than hundreds a day before the deadline.

10. And remember, always, that without us, there is no competition.

Thank you for your attention and we hope we can assume that all competitions will one day
abide by these simple suggestions.

You can view this manifesto in spiffy pdf format by clicking here.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Losing is Not the Same as Failing

In 2012, I made twenty-four entries to sixteen writing competitions. I tried to be targeted and strategic with my entries, to maximise my chances of success. The net result was one win, one runner-up place, one fifth place and one honourable mention. The prize money from the win just about covered my outlay on entry fees for the year.

One of the competitions I entered was the newly founded Costa Short Story Competition, run by the Costa Book Awards. This competition was exciting because it was open to all writers, whether they had been previously published or not, had a substantial prize pot and was associated with Costa's very high-profile book awards. Twitter and other social media meant that we hopefuls knew a lot more than usual about what was going on behind the scenes: we knew that several hundred stories had been reduced to a short list of sixty. We knew when the celebrity judges were reading these stories, when they were meeting to decide the shortlist of six, when the decision had been made. We just needed the official announcement. And then the wave of disappointment hit. We didn't (still don't) know who those shortlisted writers were, but we knew it wasn't us.

Reactions varied according to the experience of the writers involved. The comments of some of the competition 'newbies' reminded me of myself when I first started entering writing competitions and made me realise how much I have learned about the process, and about myself as a writer over the years. So I decided take all my experience to date and offer it as a guide to understanding what failing to win a writing competition really means. Here it is.

Why Losing is Not the Same as Failing

So, you’ve written a kick-ass short story and you decide to enter it into a writing competition. It’s your best work ever, and while you don’t exactly expect to win, you feel there’s a good chance of getting on the short list, or the long list at the very least. You watch the competition’s website, follow them on Twitter, start checking your inbox every five minutes as the deadline for the announcement approaches. Finally, finally, the shortlist or winners are announced, and your name’s not there. Not anywhere.

This leads you to one of two conclusions: either your story was rubbish and you are no judge of your own work, or the judges are idiots. Right?

Wrong. Here’s why:

But I wrote such a good story!
Yes, you probably did. But so did many, many of the other entrants. A small-scale competition will attract maybe 150 to 200 entries. Larger competitions will get thousands. Say, for example, in a small-scale competition, half of the entries are just not up to scratch – poorly written, ungrammatical, or disqualified for not adhering to the entry guidelines. If your story is still in the competition after those have been eliminated, you’ll still be up against at least fifty other stories and probably many more.  The judges can award prizes to maybe three of those stories. Does that automatically mean the other forty-seven or so stories were no good? Of course not.

The best story always wins, right?
No, the story the judges like best will win. What judges are asked to do is rank stories in order of preference, and ultimately that is a matter of opinion. This became apparent to me when I entered a competition where the entrants posted their stories online while waiting for the judging to take place. We were able to read and critique many of the other entries, so when the results came in, we could compare the peer-reviews to the judges’ rankings. Needless to say, they didn’t always concur.

The competition involved some 500 writers, placed into groups of twenty, competing over several rounds, with competitors progressing according to how many points they accumulated. In the first round, the top ten stories in each group of twenty writers were awarded points. If you didn’t make the top ten, you got no points. Now, many of the writers on the online forum felt that big fat zero against their entry meant the judges had read their story and thought it was worth... well, nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch. But of course, that’s not what a score of zero meant. It just meant that in that group, there were ten stories that the judges preferred. It’s the same in any writing competition, although not always as transparent as in this example.

The crucial lesson is that while winning a writing competition means you’re doing it right, not winning doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong.

It’s a numbers game
So, how do the judges really decide who wins? Understanding how writing competitions are judged can help get both your wins and your losses into perspective.

In smaller competitions, the named judge or judges will probably read all the entries, but in larger competitions, the entries will be read first by ‘slush’ readers. The first job of these readers is to weed out the stories that are ineligible for any reason (word count too long, requested format not adhered to, theme not followed, etc).  Don’t underestimate how important these details are. Plenty of stories are not even read the whole way through before being eliminated. An experienced slush reader told me:
‘I reject any that are littered with typos, grammar or spelling mistakes. If the author can't be bothered to polish and perfect their story, why should I spend my time reading it?’

Even if your grammar and punctuation are impeccable and you have adhered to the required font and formatting, your entry might still end up in the reject heap without the slush reader making it to the end of the story:
‘An experienced reader can tell very quickly if the story might be a contender. It needs to grab my attention straight away and that's largely down to whether there's an engaging voice in the opening sentences.’

So the first cull can be brutal, and you really need to be at the top of your game to survive it. Even so, each slush reader will still have a big stack of stories to read in full and winnow down.

How does slush readers decide which stories to put forward to the ‘named’ judges? Most commonly, they will use a score sheet. The slush readers will score the stories, and put forward the top scoring ones for the next stage of judging. The score sheet will list a variety of qualities that the story should be judged on, and a maximum score available for each criterion. Points can be awarded for voice, tone, characterisation, engagement of the reader, plot development, how satisfied the story leaves the reader, and many other qualities. The balance of these scores is often reflected in judges feedback, where it is available: stories that fail to make the grade may be praised for a ‘lovely voice’ but lose out on character or plot development. Or a story may have a great story arc, but the main characters feel wooden or lacking. Or the writing might be just sublime, but the story underdeveloped. In other words, if any crucial element leaves the slush reader feeling ‘meh’, no matter how strong other elements may be, the story is unlikely to make it to the next round.

These readers will be well qualified for the job – they are often writers and editors in their own right. They will know ‘good’ writing when they see it, and will have the experience to analyse and score the stories fairly and knowledgably. But, even bringing all that experience to bear, there is no empirical way of measuring which story is ‘the best’. Judges are readers with opinions and personal taste, just like anyone else.

The same applies all the way through the judging process. In a larger competition, there will often be a panel of ‘high profile’ judges and the final selection will be made by these judges coming together and discussing their favourite entries until they arrive a consensus. And consensus can sometimes mean compromise. It is safe to say that all the stories being considered at this point will be ‘good’ stories. Yours might well be one of them.

So what do I do with that ‘failed’ story now?
It’s always disappointing when you send your beloved story out into the world and the result is a resounding silence. Just bear in mind everything I’ve said above, and remember, it’s not that your story was no good, it’s just that there were three, or five or whatever number of stories that the judges liked better. That’s all you can really infer from ‘losing’ a writing competition.

So what now? Enter your story in another competition, if you know in your heart it’s a good story. I won a competition recently with a story that had been entered into at least half a dozen other competitions over several years and had never so much as been long listed before. Another story that had been doing the rounds for a while finally got shortlisted in a competition where the winning and shortlisted stories (including mine) were subsequently published in an anthology. In that case, the judge was looking for stories that would work well together as a collection. Many an excellent story may have not made the cut because it didn’t fit that theme.

If you are suddenly doubting whether the story is any good, get other writers to read it and get their opinion. Don’t ask your mother or your best friend. Join a writing group or online writers’ forum and get honest feedback. It’s hard to maintain faith in your writing if you are working in a vacuum, and failure to win competitions is no way to accurately judge the value of your work. Some competitions will provide feedback on your story for an extra fee, and this might be worth considering.

Finally, bear this in mind (and this applies to all sorts of submissions, be they to competitions, magazines or publishers): your work is not judged in isolation, but in relation to all the other entries. The judges may want the winning and short listed entries to contrast with or compliment each other, to work together in an anthology or to reflect the style of the sponsoring body. It’s as if they are putting together an outfit and what they really need to complete it is a nice pair of black boots. But you’ve sent them a red dress. They already have some red dresses, and one in particular suits them better than yours. So they politely decline your offer of a red dress. Does that mean your red dress is any less lovely? 

Further reading:
Since I first posted this, I've found or been directed to some other great posts on the subject. I'll add them here as I go along.
  • A great post here by Tracey Upchurch on why you are never too small for the 'big' competitions.
  • Two fabulous accounts of what it is really like to be a slush reader: Susannah Rickards on Emma Darwin's blog here and Dexter Petley recounting his experience here on Lesley McDowell's blog.
  • Feel like giving up after five rejections? Ten? You'll never give up again on a story you believe in after reading this article on submitting to magazines. Success is like getting all the numbers right in a combination lock. Rejection might mean only one number was wrong.